English Words and Their Background

By George H. McKnight | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VI
THE NATIVE ELEMENT IN THE ENGLISH VOCABULARY

Having begun the story of English words in medias res by plunging into the very midst of the creative activity which is shaping a language to express the spirit of modern thought, it is now time to revert in the narrative, to consider the matter of ancestry and to distinguish the different elements that enter into the composition of this language of varied strains. The element that naturally should first engage the attention is the native element, the warp about which has been woven the complex modern fabric.

Any one that undertakes for the first time to read a passage of the English written before the Norman Conquest is bound to be impressed by the difference between the language of that time and the language of to-day. The Old English seems to be a foreign tongue. The difference from modern English, apparent everywhere, is especially conspicuous in the language of poetry. Such words as eoh for 'horse,' līg for 'flame,' rīc for 'warrior,' tīr for 'glory,' folde for 'earth,' Ēce for 'eternal', have little or no relation to modern English; the variant names metod, scyppend, frĒa, and drihten will hardly be recognized as English names of the Christian God.

If one is acquainted with modern German he will soon begin to recognize among the words so un-English in appearance, a number that resemble words in modern German. In such words as niman, 'take'; wunian, 'dwell'; mid, 'with'; Ēac, 'also'; lĒof, 'dear'; sige, 'victory'; here, 'army'; weorthan, 'become'; weorpan' 'throw'; he will per-

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